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date: 25 July 2021

Pastoralism in Eastern Africafree

Pastoralism in Eastern Africafree

  • John GalatyJohn GalatyDepartment of Anthropology, McGill University


The Rift Valley is a stage on which the history of Eastern Africa has unfolded over the last 10,000 years. It served as a corridor for the southward migration from the Upper Nile and the Ethiopian highlands of Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic speakers and cultures, with their domestic animals, which over time defined and restructured the social and cultural fabric of East Africa. Genetic evidence suggests that, contrary to other regions in Africa where geography overrides language, the clustering of East African populations primarily reflects linguistic affiliation. Eastern Sudanic Nilotic speakers are dedicated livestock keepers whose identification with cattle over thousands of years is manifested in elaborate symbolism, networks created by cattle exchange, and the practice of sacrifice. The geographical attributes of rich grasslands in a semi-arid environment, close proximity of lowland and highland grazing, and a bimodal rainfall regime, made the Rift Valley an ideal setting for increasingly specialized pastoralism. However, specialized animal husbandry characteristic of East Africa was possible only within a wider socioeconomic configuration that included hunters and bee-keeping foragers and cultivators occupying escarpments and highland areas. Some pastoral groups, like Maasai, Turkana, Borana, and Somali, spread widely across grazing areas, creating more culturally homogeneous regions, while others settled near one another in geographically variegated regions, as in the Omo Valley, the Lake Baringo basin, or the Tanzanian western highlands, creating social knots that signal historical interlaying and long-term mutual coexistence. At the advent of the colonial period, Oromo and Maasai speakers successfully exploited the ecological potential of the Rift environment by combining the art of raising animals with social systems built out of principles of clanship, age and generation organizations, and territorial sections. Faced with displacement by colonial settlers and then privatization of rangelands, some Maasai pastoralists sold lands that they had been allocated, leading to landlessness amid rangeland bounty. Pastoral futures involve a combination of education, religious conversion, and diversified rangeland livelihoods, which combine animal production with cultivation, business, wage labor, or conservation enterprises. Pastoralists provide urban markets with meat, but, with human population increasing, per capita livestock holdings have diminished, leading to rural poverty, as small towns absorbing young people departing pastoralism have become critical. The Great East African Rift Valley has had a 10,000-year history of developing pastoralism as one of the world’s great forms of food production, which spread throughout Eastern Africa. The dynamics of pastoral mobility and dedication to livestock have been challenged by modernity, which has undermined pastoral territoriality and culture while providing opportunities that pastoralists now seek as citizens of their nations and the world.


  • Cultural History
  • East Africa and Indian Ocean
  • Economic History

The Great Rift Valley is a gash in the earth, visible from space, which runs 3,730 miles from Lebanon to Mozambique. Nowhere is it more impressive than in Eastern Africa, where the 35-million-year-old process of rifting and faulting has given rise to a geography of sudden escarpments that fall thousands of feet to the valley floor, next to mountainous upheavals and eruptions of great volcanic peaks and highland plateau. The East African Rift Valley can be tracked by a line of freshwater and alkaline lakes into which rivers from neighboring highlands run. Grasslands cover the valley itself, lower and hotter in the far north of Kenya, with Lake Turkana, and in the far south, with Lakes Magadi and Natron, but somewhat higher and cooler in the central region where Lakes Baringo, Bogoria, Nakuru, and Naivasha look up to the region’s most distinctive highlands, rising on both sides of the Rift Valley. The highest mountains in Africa, at up to 19,000 ft., originated as volcanic eruptions that burst along the Rift Valley fault line, some still simmering and smoking, among them Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, and Oldoinyo Lenkai.1

The Rift Valley is a stage on which the human history of the region has unfolded over the last 10,000 years, a corridor for the migration of peoples and ideas that over time came to define the social and cultural fabric of East Africa. There are four types of evidence that have allowed pre-historians to reconstruct lines of connectivity between regions, and by inference the melding and emergence of peoples, languages, and forms of subsistence: archaeology and zoo-archaeology, genetic relations, historical linguistics, and oral traditions. This article will review the history of animal domestication and the spread of pastoralist subsistence practices, the linguistic and archaeological evidence for the successive movements of pastoral peoples throughout the Rift Valley region, and the dynamic movements and interactions whereby groups became who and what they now are. The article will then focus on regional sites of intense interaction between pastoral communities marked by different historical trajectories and influenced by the geography of the great valley, and it will finally review dynamics of change that define the trajectories of pastoral communities, from past to present and future.

The Peopling of East Africa, in Geographical Context

Archaeology and climate history, combined with reconstructions from historical linguistics, suggests a provisional outline of the origins and spread of subsistence practices in Eastern Africa. Ten millennia ago, wetter conditions led to the increase of woodland savanna across the Sahara, and the spread of “Megachad” and swamps in the Nile basin, then connected to Lake Turkana. An aquatic-based gathering, hunting, and fishing culture, evidenced by harpoons, spread throughout the Saharan wetlands. It was in this eastern Saharan locale around 9,000 years ago that cattle may have been first domesticated in conjunction with a complex of hunting-foraging and fishing.2 After a long wet period, the Sahara entered a drier phase from about 7,000 years ago, with the aquatic environment transitioning into dryland grasses, too arid for cattle keepers who were thus deterred from moving southward. Zoo-archaeological evidence suggests that the onset of somewhat more humid conditions, similar to the present-day semi-arid climatic regime, made possible southward movement of herding, presumably by some combination of Sudanic and Afro-Asiatic peoples, into the Lake Turkana basin from 5,000 years ago.3 These two streams of culture, originating in the Upper Nile and the Ethiopian highlands, shaped the history of the region of East Africa as people and ideas moved and were restructured.4 Historical reconstructions of the vocabulary of Sudanic and Afro-Asiatic speakers provide a tentative cultural profile of people and ideas that moved progressively into East Africa.5 Alongside evidence of earlier animal domestication were signs of domesticated grains based on wild sorghum and millet varieties that had long been harvested, which, with the invention of earthen utensils, could be prepared as porridge. A village-based Sudanic culture, with cattle pens, circular houses, and granaries, would spread across the Sahara and southward down the Rift Valley. Linguistic reconstructions of Sudanic languages allow cultural inferences regarding the development of monotheistic beliefs in a high deity identified with sky and rain, also manifested as lesser spirits, with notions of divine judgment and an afterlife (ideas that with world significance would be diffused to Semitic neighbors), along with lower incisor removal and horn trumpets, all significant markers of later Nilotic-speaking peoples. It would appear that Afro-Asiatic cultures were influenced by Sudanic practices of cattle domestication, wild grain collecting, and religious traditions, of which a southern branch evolved into Cushitic speakers who subsequently played a seminal role in East African history.6

There is a risk of interpreting evidence of linguistic branching as a linear process acted out by bounded communities, rather than complex dialectical interactions between multiple linguistic and genetic forms. But there is value in considering how linguistic, genetic, and cultural forms subdivided, intersected, and integrated over time. The southernmost Afro-Asiatic speakers divided into northern, southern, and eastern branches of Cushitic languages spoken throughout the Horn of Africa. Within the Nilo-Saharan language family, an important sub-group of Eastern Sudanic languages included the cattle-keeping Nilotic speakers, who over time divided into western, southern, and eastern branches, all of whom, in succession and finally in dynamic interaction, profoundly shaped Rift Valley society.7 The migration and reorganization of the diverse societies and their fragments, associated with emergent linguistic forms, were in turn influenced by the physical geography and climate of the Rift Valley, including the proximity of the valley floor, its high escarpments and neighboring plateau lands, the alkaline and freshwater lakes that tracked the path of the valley, and the presence of the highest mountains on the African continent. Khoisan speakers and Eburran hunters and foragers long inhabited forested areas and grasslands of the central Rift Valley before the introduction of food production from the north.8 The association of the two major subsequent streams of migration of peoples with herding economies has led to them being characterized as “pastoralists,” practicing diverse herd management practices such as nomadism, semi-nomadism, seasonal transhumance, and settled agro-pastoralism, with many communities combining animal production with hunting, fishing, and gathering.9 How did the cultural configurations and land use of these southward diffusing peoples come to characterize Rift Valley societies, not just as singular communities but as participants in regional systems made up of dynamically interacting communities with both diversified economies and complementary specialists? Some pastoral groups, like Maasai, Turkana, Borana, and Somali, tended to spread throughout grazing areas, creating more culturally homogeneous regions, while other distinct groups settled near one another in more geographically variegated regions, as in the Omo Valley, the Lake Baringo basin, or the Tanzanian highlands, creating social knots that signal historical interlaying and long-term mutual coexistence.

The spatial distribution of different cultural-linguistic communities engaged in contemporary interactions in the Rift Valley regions of East Africa provides living signs of historical “layers” of earlier migrations. Indeed, genetic evidence suggests that the Nile Valley and its Rift Valley continuation provided a genetic north-south corridor between distinct regions, contributing to East Africa having “the greatest level of regional substructure in the continent and the world”; significantly, “East Africa populations cluster mainly by linguistic affiliation” in contrast to other regions of Africa where geography overrides language.10 Several small Khoisan-speaking communities in northern Tanzania undoubtedly represent descendants of hunters and foragers who once inhabited the entire southern Rift Valley prior to the arrival of food-producing people from the north. These include the Khoisan-speaking Kindiga, or Hadzape (or Hadza), who live south of Lake Eyasi, and, further south, the Sandawe.11 Ancestral Southern Cushites pursued livestock-raising combined with cultivation of grains from both Cushitic and Sudanic origins, especially finger millet and sorghum, spreading southward from the Ethiopian highlands into the drier lowlands near Lake Turkana and then further south from about 5,500 years ago. These early Cushites are associated by archaeologists with megalithic burial sites, stone terraces and walls, and early well systems. These first pastoralists who descended into the Rift Valley interacted with and presumably assimilated many Rift and Khoisan-speaking hunters and foragers over the next several thousand years; their linguistic descendants are the Iraqw, Burungi, and Alagwa, who reside to the west of the Rift in north-central Tanzania.12

After Southern Cushitic speakers had moved southward out of southern Ethiopia and the Lake Turkana basin, Eastern Cushitic speakers in turn spread throughout the Horn of Africa, southern Ethiopia, and northeastern Kenya. Their early movement southward is attested by the presence of Yaaku speakers, now known as Mokogodo, whose persistence as hunters, foragers, and beekeepers to the northwest of Mount Kenya undoubtedly derived from their socioecological complementarity with pastoralists, most recently the Laikipiak Maasai, with whom they enjoyed a sort of symbiosis. Lowland Eastern Cushitic speakers, including the Dassanetch and Arbore, were among those who settled in the lower Omo Valley, along with the small Omotic-speaking communities, such as the Dime, Dorze, and Karo, privileging animal-keeping but combining herding with riverine and rain-fed cultivation and hunting-foraging-fishing.13 Highland representatives of the Eastern Cushites included Oromo speakers (including Borana, Gabra, Guji, Arsi), who came to predominate in southern Ethiopia before spreading northward throughout the highlands and southward into Kenya. Related Eastern Cushitic speakers, the Somali and Afar, must have spread from southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya (where the related Rendille, Sakuye, Gabra, and Garre still live) throughout the Horn of Africa, but over centuries migrated back through Somalia and into northeastern Kenya.14

Out of the Nilo-Saharan cultural complex emerged Eastern Sudanic Nilotic speakers, dedicated livestock keepers whose identification with cattle over thousands of years is manifested in elaborate symbolism, networks created by cattle exchange, and the practice of sacrifice. From about 3,000 years ago, in a locale in the Upper Nile, the Nilotes divided into three branches. Western Nilotes like Nuer, Dinka, and Anuak still predominate in that region, while the Luo and their Acholi cousins moved southward above the western escarpment of the Rift Valley, the former as far as eastern Lake Victoria.15 Eastern Nilotes were long located near the four-country borderlands (Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia), while Southern Nilotes were the first to come southward down the Rift Valley. Given distinctive ritual practices and linguistic characteristics, they must have lived in proximity to an Eastern Cushitic-speaking society near Lake Turkana for some period of time about 3,000 years ago, from whom they borrowed a distinctive set of cultural practices that define them to the present, including male and female circumcision, a ban on eating eggs and fish, castes of ironworkers, low status for hunters, and the name Waak’a for an overarching divinity.16 Presumably pushing their Southern Cushitic predecessors, the Southern Nilotes divided into southern and northern branches. The southern branch included the Tatoga (including the Barabaig), who long occupied the broad plains of the southern Rift Valley and the crater highlands, until with Maa speakers’ arrival they came to inhabit the highlands west of the Tanzanian Rift Valley. Of the northern branch of the Southern Nilotes, the Kalenjin speakers (including Nandi, Kipsigis, Marakwet, Elgeyo and Tugen) and the related Pokot, along with the Sirikwa, who only exist in archaeological and oral memory, occupied the highlands west of the Rift Valley from central to southern Kenya.

By 2,500 years ago, three archaeological cultures, distinct but overlapping in time and space, coexisted in the larger Rift Valley area of south-central Kenya.17 The central Rift Valley thus had come to represent a “complex multi-ethnic multi-economic situation,” with communication and exchange occurring between ethnically, economically, and culturally distinct groups.18 It is highly likely that these three cultures represented the long-standing presence of hunter-foragers, originally Khoisan speakers, Southern Cushitic savannah pastoralists, and early highland-dwelling agro-pastoral Southern Nilotes.19 Throughout the 20th century, we can witness the capacity of distinct communities to coexist by exploiting different resources through complementary forms of land use and livelihoods within a regional system of exchange and interaction, while maintaining their own ethnic boundaries, languages, and social systems. These regional systems proved resilient over time, through the advent of colonialism into the 21st-century epoch, though the actors had changed with further migration of the Southern Cushites southward and the arrival from the north of Maa-speaking herders, those known as Iloogolala (also known as “Kwavi,” Iloikop, or Parakuiyo, otherwise known as Baraguyu), the Laikipiak, and finally the Maasai themselves.

Harking back, after splitting from the Bari speakers, who diverged westward within southern Sudan, the other Eastern Nilotes divided into two groups from about 2,500 years ago, the linguistic ancestors of the Teso-Turkana and the Lotuko-Maa. The former moved to the borderlands above the western Rift Valley escarpment, the latter along the western side of Lake Turkana, where they acquired the same cultural traits as had the Southern Nilotes, from them or directly from an Eastern Cushitic group living near Lake Turkana, speculatively called the “Proto-Baz.”20 In this way, the Lotuko and the Maa developed a cultural system that distinguishes them from the Teso-Turkana to the present day.

During the first half of the first millennium ce, ancestral Lotuko moved westward to their habitation in southern Sudan, while the Ongamo-Maa occupied the rangeland zone from the western shore of Lake Turkana southward to the Lake Baringo basin, from where the related Ongamo moved southward to Mount Kilimanjaro about 1,500 years ago.21 There are some signs of early Maa speakers in the south from the earliest times, where they encountered Southern Cushitic and Southern Nilotic communities. The last 500 years saw the emergence of northern, central, and southern Maa dialects associated with contemporary sections, but also other Maa speaking sections who would be assimilated by these enduring groups as an outcome of the so-called Iloikop wars.22 Based on linguistic commonalties of the most northern and most southern Maa sections (Samburu or Lokop and Parakuiyo), and the use of the Iloikop nomenclature by neighbors of diverse Maa speakers in the Rift Valley, it is likely that a distinction between central and peripheral Maa emerged that revolved around Maa speakers who occupied the region south of Baringo through Naivasha and the central Rift Valley, who became known as Maasai.23

As the Teso-Turkana divided into the Teso, Karamojong’, Jie, Toposa, and Nyangatom, who inhabited the Ugandan escarpment across the borderlands to the north of Lake Turkana, one branch of the Teso would spread from west to east from across the Rift Valley floor, and, in displacing Proto-Samburu Maa speakers, would become the Turkana.24 Oral traditions identify various social fractions that preceded their amalgamation into territorial polities, and traveler reports are sufficiently detailed to allow us to identify major Maasai social entities, such as the Maasai and Iloikop identified by Krapf in the mid-19th century.25 There is considerable evidence that most of the Maasai “sections” (Iloshon), which combined political organization, systems of clanship, differentiated linguistic dialects, and territorial presence, existed prior to the establishment of colonial administration.26 But oral traditions, along with Maa dialectical analysis, allow us to identify major Maa-speaking groupings that experienced quite distinct regional histories. The North Maa (who with the Laikipiak were called “Kore” by their neighbors) include the contemporary Samburu (who in fact call themselves “Lokop”), who assimilated other fractions such as the Loibor Kineji, ‘people of the white goats’, and maintained close ties with the Chamus of Baringo. The latter represented the welding of local communities together with refugees from Uasin Gishu, Ilosekelai, Laikipiak, and Samburu, fleeing drought and war, into a mixed pastoral, fishing, and irrigation agricultural economy.27 The Maa-speaking Laikipiak, linguistically classified as “Central Maa” based on records of coastal refugees, given their political dissolution in about 1870, were a dominant presence in the region now known as Laikipia northward to Marsabit. Western Maa sections (a historical, not a linguistic classification), including Uasin Gishu, Losekelai, and Siria, had earlier been largely absorbed by the Laikipiak and the Maasai (especially the Purko), the Moitanik dividing from the Uasin Gishu during their colonial refugee period. Linguistic evidence suggests that the Iloogolala (or “Kwavi,” later called Parakuiyo) lived near the Samburu in the north before coming to occupy the central Rift Valley, the Loita Hills, and the Kaputie plains in the 18th century.28

It is in the context of their expansion to the west against Uasin Gishu, Siria, and Ilosekelai, and then progressively eastward at the expense of the Iloogolala, both into the Loita Hills and throughout what is now Kajiado County, that the South Maa sections came to be known as the Maasai. Among them, the Iltarakwai Maasai (‘people of the highland cedar’)—including the Purko, Keekonyokie, Damat, and Ildalalekutuk—came to dominate the central Rift Valley and both the Mau (western) and Aberdare (eastern) escarpments, and, through their battle with the Laikipiak, consolidated their hold on Naivasha and Nakuru in the central Rift Valley while expanding north via Ang’ata Pus to Laikipia. To the southeast, it was through earlier struggle with the Iloogolala across several fronts that the Osilalei Maasai (‘people of the Lowland Lily’) segmented and spread southward within the Rift Valley up to Lake Natron (Iloodokilani and Matapato), into the Loita Hills (Iloitai, with Salei and Laitayok), onto the plains named Kaputie, and throughout the region north of Kilimanjaro (the Kisongo). As the Iloogolala (along with Enkang’ Lema) were pushed southward into what would become Tanzania, the Kisongo followed, pushing these “Kwavi” or Parakuiyo to the margins of the plains. In this way, a southern periphery emerged among the South Maa, made up of the Arusha and the Parakuiyo.29 So from the 16th to the 19th centuries, Maa speakers expanded from north to south, throughout territories along the Rift Valley and adjacent plains that stretched from northern Kenya to southern Tanzania. In so doing, they absorbed and pushed their Southern Cushitic and Southern Nilotic predecessors onto the plateau of the western escarpment, making becoming “Maasai” a criterion for pursuing pastoralism throughout the Rift Valley.30

The geographical attributes of rich grasslands in a semi-arid environment, close proximity of lowland and highland grazing, and a bimodal rainfall regime made the Rift Valley an ideal setting for increasingly specialized pastoralism. However, specialized animal husbandry was possible only through a wider socioeconomic configuration that included hunters and foragers, including beekeeping, and cultivators occupying forested escarpments and highland areas. Cultivation had entered East Africa with Sudanic and Cushitic migrants, who nonetheless were dedicated stock-keepers, but also through a distinct wave of in-migration of Bantu speakers from West Africa starting somewhat more than 2,000 years ago, who arrived in East Africa from north of the Congo basin to inhabit the Great Lakes region, and from the south, along coastal and then highland areas for settlement and cultivation. Hunting peoples, like the Eastern Cushitic-speaking Mokogodo, mentioned earlier, tend to speak languages related to pastoralists who were prior occupants of the plains, like the South Kalenjin language spoken by the so-called Dorobo or Okiek, who occupy the Rift Valley forest escarpments and neighboring mountains in Samburu territory. The Maasai coped with livestock losses during periodic droughts and conflict in part by seeking refuge with forest dwellers such as Dorobo and cultivators such as Kikuyu—often communities with whom relations of exchange, sharing, and intermarriage already existed.31 In this way, the spread of more specialized pastoral communities throughout the Rift Valley and its surrounding highlands depended on their invisible partners within a regional triangular system of complementary and mutually dependent livelihoods of herders, farmers, and hunter-foragers.32

Regional Systems and Knots of Interaction

This account has used processes of migration and diffusion of ideas to depict one perspective on currents of East African history. But this linear picture of successive migrations down the Rift Valley’s rangeland corridor is incomplete without the dimension of transformation. As different groups interacted with and displaced their predecessors, they underwent changes memorialized in the history of linguistic borrowings and the evolution of livelihoods and culture. Social history from Lake Turkana in northern Kenya through central to southern Tanzania can be seen as a succession of Khoisan, Southern Cushitic, Eastern Cushitic, Southern Nilotic, and finally Eastern Nilotic and Bantu-speaking groups, leaving behind them traces in oral histories, linguistic patterns, and present-day societies. Some clearly have continuities with present-day groups, where they represent, to themselves and their neighbors, not historical remnants of a complex past, but contemporary societies living in dynamic interaction and confluence with other groups, making up social “knots.”

Pastoralists are not the only people who move, but movement is their modus vivendi; mobility on a daily or seasonal basis more easily becomes expansion, whether in dry season or drought, when the search for water within a widening orbit of grazing becomes imperative, or in wet seasons when pastures once out of reach become accessible due to standing pools of water to nourish livestock. So southward movement down the pastures of the Rift Valley floor or along its plateaus did not necessarily require conflict between communities, but equally did not exclude motivations borne out of age-set frictions or competition for resources, nor out of progressively closer ties arising from cattle partnerships or romantic ties of love and marriage, as groups melded together. From an economic perspective, livestock were embodiments of both use and exchange values, and served as a crucial means of subsistence and exchange for all groups in the region. In these ways, pastoral groups in motion began to refashion Rift Valley societies and in turn transformed themselves. For the descendants of both Cushitic and Nilotic streams of culture, derived from two of the great African language families—the Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan—livestock husbandry was central to their economies and cultural life.33 Being pastoralists, both an economy and a way of life, opened up migration as a process, but it was also shaped during the process of movement by the political ecology of the Rift and interaction between cultures. So, communities that undertook southward migration were transformed by their encounters with new habitats and through engaging other groups, and in that process saw their identities transform as they underwent “ethnogenesis.”34

In distinct regions of Rift Valley society, different structural patterns arose that suggest the value of breaking up a general history of East Africa into a series of more specific histories. One important dimension lies in how ecology and climate influence land use, livelihoods, and social interactions in distinct northern, central, and southern sectors of the Rift Valley, separate socioecological regions that are connected by transitional corridors. Lakes can be used to define landmarks and symbols for these regional systems, defined in the north by Lake Turkana, in the center by Lakes Baringo to Naivasha, and in the south by Lakes Manyara and Eyasi.

At the complex borderlands where northern Kenya meets Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda, the valley widens to form two pathways of southward migration, from today’s Sudan and Ethiopia. Following the Omo River northward from the delta where it flows into Lake Turkana, social and cultural complexity increases. Today, the Omo Valley in Ethiopia’s southwest serves as a plug where a knot of small agro-pastoral societies coexist, representing three branches of the Afro-Asiatic language family (Semitic, Cushitic, and Omotic) that have differentiated over a time period much longer than characterizes Indo-European languages, and two branches of the Eastern Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan languages (Nilotic and Surma). Here, local movements are bound up with competition over riverine grazing, floodplain cultivation and seasonal fishing, mixed with hunting and foraging. The Dassanetch, who occupy the Omo delta and the northern shores of Lake Turkana, carry out cultivation and fishing as the river floods diminish, and herd goats and sheep, much as do the neighboring Arbore, Mursi, Bodi, Kara, and Dime. On open pastures away from the forested Omo Valley, these small agro-pastoral societies encounter Oromo (Eastern Cushitic) pastoralists to the east, and Nyangatom, Toposa, and Turkana (Eastern Nilotic) pastoralists to the west.35

How has the topology of the Rift Valley influenced the scale of territories settled and the size and densities of populations? The forested and hilly country of the river valley has given rise to many smaller groups, like the agro-pastoral Mursi and Bodi, who have both conflicted and intermarried over time as their ethnic boundaries have shifted.36 The Omo Valley, with highlands to the east, offers terrain for coexistence of numerous societies from linguistically unrelated families, but whose relations with other members of the same language families, diffused across less variegated plains, signal their diverse origins. Between the western Rift Valley escarpment and the shore of Lake Turkana lie the wide Lotikipi floodplains of the Kenya–Ethiopia–Sudan borderlands, offering rich, seasonal pastures for more specialized herders. These plains, earlier described as a homeland of Eastern Nilotes, form a transition between the drier Kenyan Rift Valley that narrows to the south and the relatively flat, seasonally inundated plains that drain the wetter Upper Nile region to the north. In this transitional borderland zone, interactions between diverse peoples have resulted in admixtures of economy and society, the genesis of new groups, and the initiation of new periods of cultural development.37 This pastoral region was seen by colonial powers as sufficiently remote and inhospitable that it became a “four-corner” region, politically inconsequential, marginal to trade, and intractable to administration.38 Its subdivision was arbitrary: the Nilotic speaking Teso-Turkana peoples were divided between four flags (Turkana to Kenya, Jie, Karamojong‘ and Teso to Uganda, Nyangatom to Ethiopia, and Dodos and Toposa to Sudan).39

Here, Southern and Eastern Nilotic speakers in turn experienced the influence of Eastern Cushitic vocabulary and cultural practices that distinguish them from Western Nilotes like the Nuer and Dinka and other Eastern Nilotes like the Turkana.40 East of Lake Turkana, the Oromo-speaking Borana began their extraordinary expansion in the 16th century, when they moved northward throughout central and western Ethiopia and southward into central Kenya, socially differentiating as they moved. Their combination of generation and age-set systems provided them both the means of political organization and the motive, given cycles of marriage that required livestock as bride-wealth and the historical mandate, that each new age/generation should occupy a new territory.41

Rainfall, temperature, and vegetation are directly influenced by altitude. Under 1,640 ft. in altitude, the low region of Lodwar west of Lake Turkana receives less than 8 inches of annual rainfall and averages more than 30°C in temperature. However, climate and vegetation are also affected by regional patterns of rainfall caused by the intertropical monsoon cycle and the location of highland masses. The arid zone of the Horn of Africa and eastern Ethiopia penetrates the Chalbi Desert on the plateau east of Lake Turkana, creating desertic conditions between Lodwar and Lake Turkana where dromedaries are herded. Conversely, higher rainfall in the western highlands creates milder conditions in the neighboring Rift Valley, magnifying the positive effects of altitude on rain that falls in the Baringo basin and southwards.

The northern Rift Valley receives a short rainy season between March and May and more modest rainfall in November and December, most unpredictable on the western shores of Lake Turkana where arid and semi-arid grassland and bushland are interspersed with ephemeral grasses and widely spaced trees and bushes. Toward Baringo in the south, bimodal April and November rainfall patterns emerge that reach the Central Rift Valley. Two rainy seasons a year makes possible greater specialization in pastoralism, due to an extended period of lactation for livestock. Further south in Tanzania, rainfall increases but the pronounced bi-model pattern diminishes. Down the length of the Rift Valley, there is a rain shadow that drops more rain on the highlands above the eastern escarpments, but makes the escarpment itself and surrounding plains drier, while the western escarpment captures more rainfall so enjoys deeper forests and sites of cultivation, nourishing hunters and attracting prospective farmers.42

West of Lake Turkana, it can be inferred that 21st-century strategies to gain access to water were used in the past. Major seasonal rivers draining the western highlands create micro-environments on the slopes of mountains and along the plains. Seasonal wells are dug in sandy riverbeds and their tributaries, where underground water flows continue to seep even when rivers are dry with the advance of drought. Deep and permanent wells are dug and maintained in a few favorable sites probably known since antiquity. Springs, wells, and seasonal swamps beneath the eastern escarpment provide sites of grazing as well as water. And at various points, such as at Eliye on the Lake Turkana shore or Kalacha in the Chalbi Desert, springs gush out, creating oases of water and rich, salty grasses.43 There are many reasons why herders would appreciate the borderlands of northern Kenya, near the rich Omo Delta, the plains of the Ilemi Triangle, and the swamplands of the Lotikipi plains. For pastoralists grazing the Rift Valley plains, seasonal movements toward the western escarpment, to the eastern plateau, or to the basin southward would make resources provided by longer rainy seasons, cooler temperatures, and perennial watering points more accessible.

The Baringo basin, lying at the spout of the northern Rift Valley funnel, served as a transitional zone between the northern and central Rift Valley where diverse pastoral groups have encountered, met, mixed, and conflicted. The high eastern escarpment (rising to 3280 ft.) serves both as a wall and a ramp, containing lowland pastoralists or facilitating their ascent to seek access to the high grasslands of the El Barta plains in the north, the Lerogi plateau above Lake Baringo, or the Laikipia plateau further south. Pastoralists do not inevitably seek wetter and more verdant climes or occupy arid and semi-arid lands only because they are uncontested. Rather, the historical movement of pastoralists southward down the long Rift Valley has been in search of the most favorable resources and environmental conditions for stock-keeping. Hot, barren, rock-strewn, and bush-laden plains often offer rich and varied vegetation with highly nutritious grazing for cattle, sheep, and goats. The health of animals in these dry areas stems from the relative absence of parasites and grasses that retain nutrients as they dry and grow rapidly after sudden rain. The lowest and most barren areas of the Rift Valley are sources of salty soils and salt-resistant grasses that are highly nutritious for livestock.

Over three millennia, social, political, and climatic conditions have transformed seasonal trends into long-term movements and migrations, in two trajectories: from west to east, down the Uganda escarpment, across the Rift Valley plains, and up the eastern escarpment, and from north to south, along the Lake Baringo corridor. In the 19th century, Turkana and Pokot entered the Baringo basin from the northwest, the Maa-speaking Laikipiak and Samburu from the northeast, since the freshwater lake served as a haven for pastoral refugees fleeing regional strife, given its potential for irrigation and rain-fed agriculture and fishing, while in the 20th century, the Turkana continued to press eastward, up the Rift Valley wall through the El Barta plains, as far east as Isiolo.44 Both trajectories reflect shifts from drier to wetter, warmer to cooler, lower to higher, and mono- to bi-modal season rainfall systems. These ecological factors, though not sufficient explanations, may help to understand underlying factors in pastoral movements during the Pastoral Neolithic as well as during the later Maasai expansion.45

At Baringo, which receives around 30 inches of annual rainfall, the altitude of the Rift Valley floor rises as its width narrows (to 50 miles across). Around 60 miles further south, at Nakuru, the altitude of the valley floor has risen to nearly 6,000 ft., its width narrowing to less than 20 miles, with annual rainfall rising to around 35 inches. There, the Mau escarpment rises to around 10,000 ft., the eastern escarpment to over 3.000 ft. on the Kinangop plateau, and over 13,000 ft. on the heights of the Nyandarua Range. The Rift Valley thus appears virtually “pinched” through the corridor from Nakuru to Naivasha, where its narrowness is offset by the remarkable height of its walls, which on the east displace over 6,500 ft. in about 20 miles of rifts and scarps! Over that distance, annual rainfall doubles in magnitude, from lightly wooded grassland on the valley floor (under 30 inches of rainfall), through bushy savanna to montane forest and bamboo, up to grassy moorlands.46 Rainfall falls heavily on the east of massifs, casting a rain shadow to the west and northwest. The effect of the rain shadow cast by Mount Kenya and Nyandarua (the Aberdares) hits the Laikipia grasslands to the northwest and the Nakuru–Naivasha corridor; temperature drops with altitude at a faster rate than the increase in rainfall, making the pursuit of tropical cultivation tenuous at higher altitudes, despite sufficient rainfall, due to the threat of frost.47 But the eastern flank of Nyandarua is now inhabited by Kikuyu farmers, the western wall of the Rift Valley by Southern Nilotic Kalenjin speaking agro-pastoralists, including the Nandi, Kipsigis and Tugen.

The central Rift region would have offered Neolithic pastoralists well-watered grasslands, with freshwater lakes and springs on the valley floor, higher and wetter plateau regions of bushy pasture, and high moorlands for emergency use during the hot, dry season. The montane forests, too cold for tropical agriculture and too sparse in pasture for livestock, were exploited by Dorobo and Okiek trapping game and gathering honey.48 West of the Rift and along the Mau, cultivation could be pursued. The central Rift Valley is somewhat unique in having a rich and varied environment that allows for the noncompetitive pursuit of different forms of subsistence production in close geographic proximity, enabling diverse languages, cultures, settlement patterns, and land use to be sustained, underpinning the ethnic and economic complexity of the regional system.

The introduction of pastoralism into East Africa via the Rift Valley grassland corridor clearly precipitated an economic revolution, the outgrowths of which could, and can, be seen in the highly specialized systems of herding, hunting-foraging, and cultivation that evolved in the region. Neolithic pastoralism assumed numerous forms in East Africa, with animal-raising pursued within both highly specialized and highly diversified systems of production. Ambrose argues that the regional system was subsequently reshaped during the emergence and refinement of Iron Age pastoralism, which may have been associated with the early appearance of Maa speakers.49

Like the Oromo in southern Ethiopia, Maa speakers carried out a remarkable expansion over the last thousand years. If in the northern Rift ancestral Maa speakers were recipients of key elements of Eastern Cushitic cultural practices, as they moved south, they were undoubtedly the conduits of related traditions to peoples they encountered, including Bantu-speaking societies. With their movement into new geographical regions from the 16th century, they underwent social differentiation into territorial sections now associated with North, Central, and South Maa speakers, with the Samburu competing with the Oromo in northern Kenyan, the Laikipiak occupying the territory to the northwest of Mount Kenya, the Maasai-proper occupying the central Rift Valley south of Baringo and continuing southward. The Parakuiyo came to occupy territory surrounding Kilimanjaro, before being pushed into what is now Tanzania by the expansion of the central Maasai, in that process subdividing into numerous political sections, each relatively autonomous in controlling pastoral territory through locally organized age-sets, operating within an encompassing system. Maasai age-organization provided complex, interlocking institutional structures that bound together alternate generations into two social streams, creating an effective standing army. As among the Oromo, Maasai age-organization provided a framework for the exercise of authority in pastoral neighborhoods and a mechanism for wider mobilization, within and between age-sets of the same territorial unit, and, when necessary, through the same age-sets allied across political sections. In this regard, the Maasai may have evolved the most sophisticated and effective form of political economic organization in the Rift Valley region. Utilizing the ecological potential of Rift Valley resources that included lowland and highland grazing within a system of bimodal rainfall, the Maasai achieved a high degree of pastoral specialization, with productivity enhanced through trade and exchange with agricultural and hunting communities, knitted into a regional system. Through the vertical ordering of society by age and the horizontal ordering by territory, the Maasai defended a vast territory that the group had occupied by mobilizing for warfare and expansion.50

To the advent of the colonial period, Oromo and Maasai speakers successfully exploited the ecological potential of the Rift environment by combining the art of raising animals with a social system with cross-cutting political affinities built out of the principles of age and generation.51 Over time, these and other societies modified Rift ecology through the judicious use of fire, grazing, and farming, and defined its social contours by creating widespread polities in open grassland territory and smaller, more contained societies in more compact highland areas. If the journey southward made the Maasai, and other Rift Valley societies, those societies lent the Rift Valley its distinctiveness as one of the world’s remarkable features, not just of geography but of culture.

The Pastoralist Present in Future Perspective

Toward the end of the 19th century, the social configuration of the Rift Valley saw the Karamojong’ and Turkana occupation of the western escarpment plateau and lowlands in the north, the Oromo speaking Borana having established a strong presence farther east. With the demise of the Laikipiak around the mid-1870s, Samburu and their Rendille affiliates (including the bilingual Ariaal) became the predominant North Maa speakers.52 Diverse Maa sections occupied the broad region from Lake Baringo southward through the central Rift Valley and then across central Tanzania to the Naberera Wells. The political autonomy of these territorial polities, occupying broad grasslands bordered by escarpments, plateau lands, and highlands, was secured by their resilience facing three state systems at their periphery: the Abyssinian Empire to the north, the Baganda Kingdom to the west, and the Zanzibar Sultanate to the southeast. From the 18th century, Arab caravan routes moved carefully through the Rift Valley, seeking replenishments in the agricultural oases associated with Maa speakers, including the Nguruman escarpment area near Lake Natron, the Ngong’ Hills, and southern Lake Baringo.53 The establishment of colonial administration and the onset of European settlement from the end of the 19th century coincided with successive disasters of rinderpest, smallpox, cholera, and extended drought, weakening Maasai resistance.54 The pastoral land base was diminished by British and German colonial settlement of the central Rift Valley and highland areas in Kenya and northern Tanzania, implemented through dubious treaties that led to the displacements called ‘the Maasai Moves’, by which Maasai ceded the most favorable land in exchange for designated reserves.55 Throughout the colonial period, pastoral territories were deemed “closed districts,” set aside for them alone, although non-Maasai “infiltration” into the Kenyan Maasai reserve occurred by laborers from Rift Valley settler farms and ranches, as did the spread of Arusha agro-pastoralists into cultivable areas of the Maasai rangelands in Tanzania.56 Hunting and foraging groups in highland and rangeland areas of Kenya and Tanzania tended to adopt Maa dialects, including the Elmolo of Lake Turkana, the Mokogodo of Laikipia, the Dorobo of the Samburu highlands, Kijabe and the Mau, to the Asa of Tanzania, continuing a centuries-long process of social assimilation. The colonial role in subduing intergroup conflict helped smaller groups like the Chamus of Baringo to regain their footing as herders, and through the colonial amalgamation of diverse hunting and foraging groups, including the Mokogodo, Ng’wesi, Ilmomonyot, Ileuaso, and Ildigirri, into a single reserve in Laikipia, to transition to a herding economy and thus assert the continuity of the Laikipiak Maasai into the present.57

Beginning in the late colonial period, lands were set aside for wildlife protection, at first to ensure a supply of game for colonial hunting and then to preserve wildlife for purposes of conservation and to encourage the tourism industry. The National Parks Ordinance of Kenya was formulated in 1945, with the first parks and reserves founded soon thereafter: Nairobi National Park (1946), Amboseli National Reserve (1948), and Tsavo National Park (1948). Given the complementary needs of livestock and wildlife, it wasn’t remarkable that most parks and reserves were carved out of rangelands used by pastoralists. In Tanzania they included Maasai regions such as the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Manyara, Arusha, Tarangire, Meru, and Kilimanjaro. The growth of tourism in Kenya and Tanzania enhanced these states’ global reputations and financial returns, but at a cost of enormous territories taken from the hands of the very people whose conservationist ethics had preserved wildlife through the millennia.58

Following the progressive enclosure of pastoral lands during the colonial period, when administrative districts were formed and Maasai sections demarcated (not without dispute!), land reforms proceeded in the Independence period (post-1963) through the establishment of group ranches in Kenya, and administrative villages and ranching associations in Tanzania. Faced with the precedent of individual ranches allotted to Maasai elites, increase in numbers of group shareholders over time, and in-migration of herds of non-residents to still-commonly managed lands, which increasingly became de facto open-access, many group ranches underwent subdivision, with registered members gaining family allotments and title deeds.59 At the same time, faced with diminishing forbearance of community members living near parks and reserves, a movement to create community-based conservancies arose with international encouragement and support. These were sometimes created on common holdings such as group ranches, through collective action on several contiguous group ranches, on private parcels of land, or through pooling into conservation trusts on several contiguous privately held land blocs. The idea of creating community-based conservation (CBC) entities, in which wildlife would be protected and fencing and farming prohibited, was aimed at providing tourists with expanded facilities—whether lodges, campsites, nature walks, game drives—that would complement those provided by formal parks and reserves, which were often over-capacity. Of course, this also entailed local communities capturing the attention of potential tourists. The creation of such conservancies was invariably initiated by national or international conservation bodies (World Wildlife Fund, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Nature Conservancy, or the Northern Rangeland Trust) and managed by investors who provided capital to build lodges, attract tourists, run wildlife safaris, and operate conservancies as businesses. Communities contributed land and provided personnel and labor but expected to receive commensurate benefits in the form of fees (for entry, day visits, and bed nights) and allocations to support infrastructural development (schools, clinics, roads). It is an important but open question as to whether the benefits justify the contributions of land made by communities at the expense of their livelihoods.60

Some mission schools were founded in pastoral regions during the colonial period, but primary and secondary education was greatly expanded through the creation of government schools after Independence, with primary education made mandatory in Kenya three decades later. Maasai customary religious practices and great age-set rituals proved resilient throughout the colonial period, but Christian missions increasingly recruited pastoralists to mainstream Catholic and Protestant denominations, a process superseded by the electric expansion of evangelical sects that seem to offer local people with largely rural horizons a foothold in what has become a global religious culture. From the mid-1980s, pastoralists have founded numerous non-governmental and community-based organizations positioned to initiate collective political action, and have become the major African voice in the global “Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues,” with offices in New York City at the United Nations, where land claims and protests over resources lost or stolen are directed to an international audience.61

Pastoralists who had always valued livestock over land, given that the privilege of moving through grazing territories was long taken for granted, found it all too easy to sell private lands that they were allocated, leading to landlessness amid rangeland bounty for many. The combination of education, religious conversion and population growth stimulated some Maasai to pursue alternative livelihoods, in cultivation, business, wage labor, or conservation, with many of the lesser educated moving to cities to seek employment as watchmen or security guards, exploiting their traditional reputations.62 With the increase in diversified land use, the combination of fencing, intensified farming and ranching, and industrial development tended to block migratory paths for livestock and wildlife across the increasingly fragmented rangeland environment.63 But livestock production remained the pillar of the rangeland economy, as the enormous growth of great cities and regional towns generated a market for meat which only pastoralists could serve.64 But with human population increasing, per capita livestock holdings have diminished, leading some into rural poverty but others into livelihood diversification and out-migration, with the role of small towns in absorbing young people departing pastoralism becoming critical.65

Nonetheless, in the face of relative sedentarization, raising domestic animals has remained the most productive use that most semi-arid grasslands could be used for. Since many pastoralist strategies remain viable, if not essential, modern forms of mobility have arisen to respond to diverse constraints, including the selling and buying of access to grazing or grass itself, a slowing trajectory of pastoralist movement hinging on proximity to the educational, commercial, health, and religious services provided in small towns, and the spread of automatic weapons used both to protect herds and to steal them, especially in the northern areas of Kenya, near Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda.66 If livestock theft customarily earned their perpetrators a certain local panache, it has increasingly been commercialized to turn a quick profit through livestock markets, often at the behest of the rich and powerful.

In the historical context of pastoralists expanding southward down the Rift Valley corridor and to the west and east into its adjoining highlands, the major trajectories of mobility have not ceased. Turkana have continued their eastward movement across the Rift Valley, up the escarpment into Samburu County and across to Isiolo. Borana have continued a southward movement in Kenya, streaming from Marsabit to Isiolo in the context of electoral competition, and facing Samburu resistance along their own eastern flank. The pastoral East Pokot have not only contested lands long farmed and grazed by Chamus but have climbed the escarpment to occupy grazing lands in Laikipia, as settler departures have stimulated a churning of claims and counterclaims.67 The postcolonial Laikipiak now eye settler lands after what they feel is the expiration of century-long colonial leases. Maasai expelled from the central Rift Valley from 1905 have gradually diffused into once settler lands to stake claims based on years of occupancy, while attempts by non-Maasai to settle as farmers in the forests of the Mau have been rebuffed in bouts of ethnic conflict by Maasai exercising customary claims. In Tanzania, the Parakuiyo, long settled as cohabitants alongside farmers, have continued their southward movement onto the Usangu plains of southern Tanzania and into northern Zambia, farther extending the pastoralist theme in Rift Valley history.

The Great East African Rift Valley has had a 10,000-year history of bringing pastoralism into being as one of the world’s great forms of food production, serving both as a platform for its evolution over time and as a conduit for its spread and efflorescence throughout East Africa. Pastoralism has thrived there due to the concurrence of semi-arid pasturelands in proximity to lowland and highland resources and a distinctive bimodal rainfall pattern sustaining domestic stock in milk throughout the year. A proud ethos of stock-keeping established a historical hierarchy valuing livestock even in relation to other livelihoods, but pastoralism has also depended on regional systems within which products of domestic stock-keeping, crop farming, hunting, foraging, and beekeeping have been exchanged, where communities could provide havens for one another in times of stress. The dynamics of pastoral mobility and dedication to livestock have been challenged by modernity, which, while subverting systems of pastoral territoriality and culture, not least by international investments in exploiting mining, oil, geothermal, wind and farming resources in rangelands, have provided new opportunities that pastoralists now seek as citizens of their nations and the world.68

Discussion of the Literature

Archaeology, human and animal genetics, and historical linguistics are the three major fields that provide information for the earliest period, from 10,000 years ago, relating to the subject of “pastoralism in Eastern Africa.” The origins of animal domestication and the emergence of specialized pastoralism were addressed in the archaeological and zoo-archaeological work of Kuper and Riemer, Marshall, Lane, and Gifford, Isaac, and Nelson.69 Unlike the pattern found in the Middle East, animal domestication in Africa, perhaps earlier than occurred elsewhere, appears to have been associated with hunting-foraging-fishing economies, with specialized pastoralism emerging in the drylands of East Africa where herders lived in proximity to hunter-foragers and cultivators. Work in historical linguistics, by Vossen and Ehret, indicate that Sudanic (Nilotic) and Afro-Asiatic (Cushitic) speakers represented two independent but interacting streams of pastoral movement into East Africa, the former influence moving southward down the Rift Valley, the latter throughout the Horn of Africa and the eastern plateau of the Rift Valley.70 Both are associated with the development and spread of highly specialized herding economies. Archaeological findings have confirmed the presence of pastoralism near Lake Turkana about 5,000 years ago, specialized pastoralists in the central Rift Valley and as part of an Elmenteitan Pastoral Neolithic complex of food-producing systems, including interacting herders, agro-pastoralists, and hunter-foragers.71 This knot of communities practicing distinct subsistence practices in an ecologically variegated context is a Rift Valley theme that articulates with geographical and climatic factors described by Ambrose for the later Iron Age (about 1,200 years ago), which may have been associated with the first arrival of Maa-speaking people.72 The ways that Rift Valley ecology affected pastoral land use and settlement, including the proximity of highlands and lowlands, the distribution of freshwater lakes, rivers, swamps, and well systems, the variation in temperature by altitude, and the bimodal seasonality of rainfall, have been analyzed by Ambrose, Western, and Homewood.73

The differentiation of Maa speakers into three segments (North, Central, and South Maa), analyzed by Vossen alone, and with both Heine and Sommer, and subsequent evolution of sectional dialects, helps us understand the history of Maa speakers’ interactions, internal political relations, and migration patterns, and later political affinities and differences.74 For the precolonial and colonial periods, the rich work of historians has proved especially useful in identifying patterns of intergroup conflict, trends in ethnic and cultural interactions, and the impact of colonial, and then postcolonial, administration. More specifically, Lamphear described Jie history and the origins of the Turkana.75 Bernsten and Waller have described the social and political interactions among neighbors of the Maasai, and the alliances that emerged during the Maasai–Iloikop civil wars, work in oral history complemented by memoirs of earlier travelers.76 Waller has also analyzed the impact of a series of pandemics that affected the entire region but especially pastoralists and their livestock, disrupting and stimulating the reorganization of Maasai society on the eve of colonial rule.77 The complex history of the Baringo basin, the creation of the Chamus Maasai out of numerous refugee communities, and the effects of colonial rule on the ecology of the region were themes analyzed by Anderson, while Spear’s work depicted the precolonial emergence of the agricultural Arusha Maasai in interaction with Parakuiyo and Maasai pastoralists, and in conjunction with Meru cultivators around Mount Meru, and their response to colonial interventions in land holding.78 Due to the colonial treaties between the Maasai and the British, the Maasai were moved out of the central Rift Valley and later Laikipia to make way for settler ranches and plantations, into a Maasai Reserve which was in principle reserved for their use.79 Waller described the settlement of Kikuyus employed on settler ranches into the Maasai reserve, where they were either treated by colonial officials as “aliens” or by Maasai friends as “acceptees.”80 In the northeast corner of Laikipia, hunter and foraging communities long linked to Maa speakers were consolidated into the Laikipia Reserve, where, under colonial protection, they were able to flourish in pastoralism and thus assert historical continuity with the Laikipiak, who had been defeated and dispersed and then assimilated by other Maasai sections in the 1870s.81

The British colonial administration created districts that were often designated as homelands for particular ethnic groups, especially pastoralists, which did suppress conflict between pastoral groups while preventing the easy exchanges they had once enjoyed and that cross-fertilized social relations and cultural affinities. Beginning in late colonial period and increasing in the postcolonial epoch, anthropologists carried out in-depth field research among diverse pastoral societies. Over time, they increased the understanding of herding as a land use practice and a mode of domestic economy that linked animal husbandry with a series of social institutions. Maasai linked livestock ownership with family and clan structures, labor allocation with age-set systems, pasture use and management to the organization of territorial sections, and, overall, the exercise of political decision-making and defense to leadership structured by age-sets.82 Significant works include those by Bollig on the pastoral Pokot, Fratkin on the Samburu and Ariaal, Little on the Chamus Maasai, McCabe on the Turkana, Schlee on the peoples of northern Kenya, Gabbert et al. on southern Ethiopia, Cronk on the Mukogodo and the modern Laikipia, Hodgson on Tanzanian Maasai, Homewood, Kristjanson, and Trench on Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, Legesse on the role of the Gada generational system in Borana expansion, and many others.83

Of great value have been works analyzing pastoral societies comparatively, including those by Spear and Waller, Spencer, Homewood, Galvin et al., Schlee and Shongolo, Reid, Galaty, and Gabbert et al.84 Increasingly, research has transitioned from holistic ethnography to future-oriented and thematic studies, emphasizing issues of pressing concern, such as land reform and privatization, sedentarization, diversification and resilience, pastoral development, pastoral conflict, rangeland ecology and pastoralism, pastoralism and conservation, boundaries and pastoral mobility, dryland investments, and indigenous rights of pastoralists.85 As the history of the Rift Valley becomes a narrative of pastoralists as citizens of states, such future-oriented themes regarding land, conflict, governance, conservation, and rights will inevitably be of interest and concern both to contemporary pastoralists and to their friends, sympathetic observers and national and international policy makers.


I acknowledge with appreciation support provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Québec Fonds pour la Formation de Chercheurs et l‘Aide à la Recherche (FCAR), and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC); research affiliation with the National Museums of Kenya and the African Conservation Centre; collaboration with the Arid Lands and Resource Management Network in Eastern Africa (ALARM), the Pastoral Property and Poverty (PPP), and the Institutional Canopy of Conservation (I-CAN) projects; cooperation with the Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology; and the long-term institutional support of McGill University.

Further Reading

  • Bollig, Michael, Michael Schnegg, and Hans-Peter Wotzka, eds. Pastoralism in Africa: Past, Present and Future. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013.
  • Catley, Andy, Jeremy Lind, and Ian Scoones, eds. Pastoralism and Development in Africa: Dynamic Change at the Margins. London and New York: Earthscan from Routledge, 2013.
  • Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Oxford: James Currey, 2002.
  • Gabbert, Christina et al., eds. Lands of the Future: Anthropological Perspectives on Agro-Pastoralism, Land Deals and Tropes of Modernity in Eastern Africa. New York: Berghahn Books, 2020.
  • Hodgson, Dorothy L. Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous: Postcolonial Politics in a Neoliberal World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.
  • Homewood, Katherine. Ecology of African Pastoralist Societies. Oxford: James Currey, 2008.
  • Homewood, Katherine, Patti Kristjanson, and Pippa Trench, eds. Staying Maasai? Livelihoods, Conservation and Development in East African Rangelands. New York: Springer, 2009.
  • Lind, Jeremy, Doris Okenwa, and Ian Scoones, eds. Land Investment & Politics: Reconfiguring Eastern Africa’s Pastoral Drylands. Woodbridge: James Currey, 2020.
  • Reid, Robin. Savannas of our Birth: People, Wildlife, and Change in East Africa. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2012.
  • Spear, Thomas, and Richard Waller, eds. Being Maasai: Ethnicity and Identity in East Africa. London: James Currey, 1993.
  • Spencer, Paul. The Pastoral Continuum: The Marginalization of Tradition in East Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.
  • Vossen, Rainer. The Eastern Nilotes: Linguistic and Historical Reconstructions. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1982.


  • 1. Stephen Spawls and Glenn Mathews, Kenya: A Natural History (London: T. & A. D. Poyser, 2012).

  • 2. Rudolph Kuper and Heiko Riemer, “Herders before Pastoralism: Prehistoric Prelude in the Eastern Sahara,” in Pastoralism in Africa: Past, Present and Future, ed. Michael Bollig, Michael Schnegg, and Hans-Peter Wotzka (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Press, 2013), 32–65.

  • 3. Katherine Homewood, Ecology of African Pastoralist Societies (Oxford: James Currey, 2008); Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (Oxford: James Currey, 2002).

  • 4. Stanley Ambrose, “The Introduction of Pastoral Adaptations to the Highlands of East Africa,” in From Hunters to Farmers: Considerations of the Causes and Consequences of Food Production in Africa, ed. J. Desmond Clark and Steven A. Brandt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 212–239, esp. 228.

  • 5. Christopher Ehret, Ethiopians and East Africans: The Problem of Contacts (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1974); Ehret, Civilizations of Africa; and Rainer Vossen, The Eastern Nilotes: Linguistic and Historical Reconstructions (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1982).

  • 6. The northern branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family gave rise to the Ancient Egyptian, Semitic, and Berber languages. Semitic languages and people spread into the Middle East, later evolving into Arabic, Hebrew and other Semitic-speaking communities. Distinct from cattle, goats and sheep domesticated in the Middle East diffused to Sudanic peoples through return migration, who were then responsible for the early development of pastoral traditions prior to and within mixed food-producing systems (Christopher Ehret and Merrick Posnansky, eds., “Nilotic and the Limits of Eastern Sudanic: Classificatory and Historical Conclusions,” in Nilotic Studies, Part Two, ed. Ranier Vossen and Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1983), 375–421, esp. 391).

  • 7. Joseph H. Greenberg, “The Languages of Africa,” in International Journal of American Linguistics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963). This work presents an analysis of the major African language families and their subdivisions, including Khoisan, Afro-Asiastic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo families, represented in contemporary Eastern Africa by Click, Cushitic, Nilotic and Bantu-speaking communities.

  • 8. Ehret, Civilizations of Africa, 51–53, 68–70.

  • 9. Fiona Marshall, “Origins of Specialized Pastoral Production in East Africa,” American Anthropologist 92 (1990): 873–894; and Paul Lane, “Trajectories to Pastoralism in Northern and Central Kenya: An Overview of the Archaeological and Environmental Evidence,” in Pastoralism in Africa, ed. Bollig, Schnegg, and Wotzka, 105–143.

  • 10. B. Dobon et al., “The Genetics of East African Populations: A Nilo-Saharan Component in the African Genetic Landscape”, Scientific Reports 5 (2015): 9996, 1–2, 6.

  • 11. George P. Murdock, Africa: Its Peoples and their Culture History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959); James Woodburn, Hunters and Gatherers: The Material Culture of the Nomadic Hadza (London: British Museum, 1970).

  • 12. Diane Gifford, Glynn Isaac, and Cynthia Nelson, “Evidence for Predation and Pastoralism at Prolonged Drift: A Pastoral Neolithic Site in Kenya,” Azania 15 (1980): 57–108; and Ehret, Ethiopians and East Africans.

  • 13. Christina Gabbert et al., eds., Lands of the Future: Anthropological Perspectives on Agro-Pastoralism, Land Deals and Tropes of Modernity in Eastern Africa (New York: Berghahn Books, 2021).

  • 14. Günther Schlee and Abdullahi A. Shongolo, Pastoralism and Politics in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia (Oxford: James Currey, 2012).

  • 15. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).

  • 16. Murdock, Africa; Ehret, Ethiopians and East Africans; and Vossen, The Eastern Nilotes.

  • 17. Fiona Marshall, “The Origins and Spread of Domestic Animals in East Africa,” in The Origins and Development of African Livestock, ed. Roger M. Blench and Kevin C. MacDonald (London: UCL Press, 2000), 191–221.

  • 18. Gifford, Isaac, and Nelson, “Evidence for Predation,” 90; Stanley Ambrose, “The Relevance of the Dorobo to the Prehistory of East Africa,” paper presented at International Symposium: African Hunter-Gatherers, Institut für Afrikanistik, University of Cologne, January 3–5, 1985, 20; and Lane, “Trajectories to Pastoralism.”

  • 19. Ehret, Ethiopians and East Africans.

  • 20. Gabriele Sommer and Rainer Vossen, “Dialects, Sectiolects, or Simply Lects? The Maa Language in Time Perspective,” in Being Maasai: Ethnicity and Identity in East Africa, ed. Tom Spear and Richard Waller (London: James Currey, 1993), 25–37, esp. 29; Bernd Heine, Franz Rottland, and Ranier Vossen, “Proto-Baz: Some Aspects of Early Nilotic-Cushitic Contacts,” SUGIA, Sprache under Geschichte in Afrika 1 (1979): 75–91.

  • 21. Vossen, The Eastern Nilotes, 470–473.

  • 22. Rainer Vossen, Towards a Comparative Study of the Maa Dialects of Kenya and Tanzania: Nilo-Saharan, Vol. 2 (Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, 1988); John Bernsten, “The Maasai and their Neighbours: Variables of Interaction,” African Economic History 2 (1976): 1–11.

  • 23. John G. Galaty, “Maasai Expansion and the New East African Pastoralism,” in Being Maasai, ed. Spear and Waller, 61–86. In archaic usage, Ol-maa is a Maasai, Il-maa, the Maasai. But the term likely derived from their use of an exclamation, ‘maa!’, before speaking, meaning “I say”, and ‘amaa’, meaning “I am asking (a question)”. Accordingly, the Maasai are those who say ‘maa’.

  • 24. Ehret, Ethiopians and East Africans; John Lamphear, The Traditional History of the Jie of Uganda (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).

  • 25. Johann Ludwig Krapf, Travels, Researches and Missionary Labours during Eighteen Years’ Residence in Eastern Africa (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1860).

  • 26. John Bernsten, “The Maasai and their Neighbours”, 1–11. John Bernsten, “Economic Variations among Maa-Speaking Peoples,” in Ecology and History in East Africa (Hadith 7), ed. Bethwell A. Ogot (Nairobi: KLB Kenya Literature Bureau for the Historical Association of Kenya, 1979), 108–127; and Vossen, Towards a Comparative Study.

  • 27. David Anderson, “Cultivating Pastoralists: Ecology and Economy among the Il Chamus of Baringo, 1840–1980,” in The Ecology of Survival: Case Studies from Northeast African History, ed. Douglas Johnson and David Anderson (London: Lester Crook Academic, 1988), 241–260; and Peter Little, The Elusive Granary: Herder, Farmer, and State in Northern Kenya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  • 28. Sommer and Vossen, “Dialects,” 34.

  • 29. Sommer and Vossen, “Dialects.”

  • 30. Richard Waller, “Economic and Social Relations in the Central Rift Valley: The Maa-Speakers and their Neighbours in the Nineteenth Century,” in Kenya in the 19th Century (Hadith 8), ed. Bethwell A. Ogot (Nairobi: Bookwise Ltd., Anyange Press, 1985), 85–151; Galaty, “Maasai Expansion.”

  • 31. Richard Waller, “Emutai: Crisis and Response in Maasailand 1883–1902,” in The Ecology of Survival, ed. Johnson and Anderson, 73–112; John D. Fage, The Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. 2: c. 500 B.C. -A.D. 1050 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

  • 32. John G. Galaty, “East African Hunters and Pastoralists in a Regional Perspective: An ‘Ethnoanthropological’ Approach,” Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika 7, no. 1 (1986): 105–131.

  • 33. Homewood, Ecology.

  • 34. David Turton, “Mursi Political Identity and Warfare: The Survival of an Idea,” in Ethnicity and Conflict in the Horn of Africa, ed. Katsuyoshi Fukui and John Markakis (London: James Currey, 1994), 15–31.

  • 35. Gabbert et al., eds., Lands of the Future.

  • 36. Turton, “Mursi Political Identity.”

  • 37. James Barber, Imperial Frontier (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1968).

  • 38. John G. Galaty, 2016, “Boundary-Making and Pastoral Conflict along the Kenyan-Ethiopian Borderlands,” African Studies Review 59, no. 01 (2016): 97–122.

  • 39. John G. Galaty, “Frontier Energetics: The Value of Pastoralist Border Crossings in Eastern Africa,” in Before and after Borders: Nomads and Modern States, ed. Jamie Levin (London: Palgrave, 2020), 101–121.

  • 40. Bernd Heine, Franz Rottland, and Ranier Vossen, “Proto-Baz: Some Aspects of Early Nilotic-Cushitic Contacts,” SUGIA, Sprache under Geschichte in Afrika 1 (1979): 75–91.

  • 41. Asmarom Legesse, Gada: Three Approaches to the Study of African Society (New York: Free Press, 1973); and Paul T. W. Baxter, Jan Hultin, and Alessandro Triulzi, Being and Becoming Oromo: Historical and Anthropological Enquiries (Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1996).

  • 42. Spawls and Mathews, Kenya, 124–134.

  • 43. David Western, “The Environment and Ecology of Pastoralists in Arid Savanna,” Development and Change 13 (1982): 183–211.

  • 44. John Lamphear, The Scattering Time: Turkana Responses to Colonial Rule (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992); Anderson, “Cultivating Pastoralists”; David Anderson, Eroding the Commons: The Politics of Ecology in Baringo, Kenya, 1890s–1963 (Oxford: James Currey, 2002); and J. Terrence McCabe, Cattle Bring Us to Our Enemies: Turkana Ecology, Politics and Raiding in a Disequilibrium System (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004).

  • 45. Gifford et al., “Evidence”; Marshall, “Origins”.

  • 46. Ambrose, “Introduction,” 4–5.

  • 47. Ambrose, “The Relevance of the Dorobo,” 6.

  • 48. Roderick Blackburn, “The Okiek: Kenya Forest Foragers” (Self-Published Manuscript, 2016); Roderick Blackburn, “The Okiek and Their History,” Azania 9 (1974): 139–157.

  • 49. Ambrose, “Introduction”; Ambrose, “The Relevance of the Dorobo”.

  • 50. John G. Galaty, “Pastoral Orbits and Deadly Jousts: Factors in the Maasai Expansion,” in Herders, Warriors and Traders: Pastoralists in Africa, ed. John G. Galaty and Pierre Bonte (Boulder, CO, San Francisco, and Oxford: Westview Press, 1991), 171–198.

  • 51. John G. Galaty, “Ceremony and Society: The Poetics of Maasai Ritual,” Man, n.s., 18 (1983): 361–382.

  • 52. Elliot Fratkin, Surviving Drought and Development: Ariaal Pastoralists of Northern Kenya (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991).

  • 53. T. Wakefield, “Routes of Native Caravans from the Coast to the Interior of Eastern Africa, Chiefly from Information Given By Sadi Bin Ahedi, a Native of a District Near Gazi, in Udigo, a Little North of Zanzibar,” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 40 (1870): 303–339.

  • 54. Waller, “Emutai.”

  • 55. Lotte Hughes, Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

  • 56. Richard Waller, “Acceptees and Aliens: Kikuyu Settlement in Maasailand,” in Being Maasai, ed. Spear and Waller, 226–257; and Thomas Spear, Mountain Farmers: Moral Economies of Land and Agricultural Development in Arusha and Meru (Oxford: James Currey, 1997).

  • 57. Anderson, Eroding the Commons; and Lee Cronk, From Mukogodo to Maasai: Ethnicity and Cultural Change in Kenya (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2004).

  • 58. Katherine Homewood, Patti Kristjanson, and Pippa Trench, eds., Staying Maasai? Livelihoods, Conservation and Development in East African Rangelands (New York: Springer, 2009).

  • 59. John G. Galaty, “‘The Land is Yours’: Social and Economic Factors in the Privatization, Sub-division and Sale of Maasai Ranches,” Nomadic Peoples 29 (1992): 26–40.

  • 60. Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature beyond the Anthropocene (London and New York: Verso, 2020); and Katherine Homewood and Michael Thompson, “Social and Economic Challenges for Conservation in East African Rangelands: Land Use, Livelihoods and Wildlife Change in Maasailand,” in Rangelands or Wildlands? Livestock and Wildlife in Semi-Arid Ecosystems, ed. Johan du Toit, R. Kock, and J. Deutsch (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010).

  • 61. Dorothy L. Hodgson, Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous: Postcolonial Politics in a Neoliberal World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011); John G. Galaty, “The Indigenization of Pastoral Modernity: Territoriality, Mobility, and Poverty in Dryland Africa,” in Pastoralism in Africa: Past, Present and Future, ed. Michael Bollig, Michael Schnegg, and Hans-Peter Wotzka (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Press, 2013), 473–510.

  • 62. Caroline Archambault et al., “Maasai Livelihood Pathways in Kenya: Macro-Level Factors in Diversifying Diversification,” in Rural Livelihoods, Regional Economies and Processes of Change, ed. Deborah Sick (New York: Routledge, 2014), 58–84.

  • 63. Kathleen Galvin et al., eds., Fragmentation in Semi-Arid and Arid Landscapes: Consequences for Human and Natural Systems (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2008).

  • 64. Andy Catley, Jeremy Lind, and Ian Scoones, eds., Pastoralism and Development in Africa: Dynamic Change at the Margins (London and New York: Earthscan from Routledge, 2013); John McPeak and Peter D. Little, eds., Pastoral Livestock Marketing in Eastern Africa: Research and Policy Changes (Warwickshire: ITDG Publications, 2006).

  • 65. Michael Bollig, “Adaptive Cycles in the Savannah: Pastoral Specialization and Diversification in Northern Kenya,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 10, no. 1 (2016): 21–44.

  • 66. Elliot Fratkin and Eric A. Roth, eds., As Pastoralists Settle: Social, Health, and Economic Consequences of Pastoral Sedentarization in Marsabit District, Kenya (New York and London: Kluwer Academic, 2005); and John G. Galaty, “Modern Mobility in East Africa: Pastoral Responses to Rangeland Fragmentation, Enclosure and Settlement,” in Lands of the Future: Anthropological Perspectives on Agro-Pastoralism, Land Deals and Tropes of Modernity in Eastern Africa, ed. Christina Gabbert et al. (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2021), 67–95.

  • 67. Michael Bollig, Risk Management in a Hazardous Environment: A Comparative Study of Two Pastoral Societies (New York: Springer, 2006).

  • 68. Catley, Lind, and Scoones, eds., Pastoralism and Development; and Galaty, “Land Grabbing”.

  • 69. Kuper and Riemer, “Herders before Pastoralism”; Lane, “Trajectories to Pastoralism”; and Gifford, Isaac, and Nelson, “Evidence for Predation.”

  • 70. Vossen, The Eastern Nilotes; Ehret, Ethiopians and East Africans; Ehret, Civilizations of Africa.

  • 71. Marshall, “Origins of Specialized Pastoral Production”; Marshall, “Origins and Spread of Domestic Animals”; and Gifford, Isaac, and Nelson, “Evidence for Predation.”

  • 72. Ambrose, “Introduction”; and Ambrose, “The Relevance of the Dorobo.”

  • 73. Ambrose, “The Relevance of the Dorobo”; Western, “The Environment”; and Homewood, Ecology.

  • 74. Ranier Vossen and Bernd Heine, “The Historical Reconstruction of Proto-Orgamo-Maa: Phonology and Vocabulary,” in Topics in Nilo-Saharan Languages, ed. M. L. Bender (Hamburg: Buske, 1989), 181–217; Vossen, Towards a Comparative Study; and Sommer and Vossen, “Dialects.”

  • 75. Lamphear, Traditional History; and Lamphear, The Scattering Time.

  • 76. Bernsten, “The Maasai and their Neighbours”; Bernsten, “Economic Variations”; Waller, “Economic and Social Relations”; and Wakefield, “Routes of Native Caravans.”

  • 77. Waller, “Emutai.”

  • 78. Anderson, “Cultivating Pastoralists”; David Anderson, “Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Restocking: Ideology and Practice in Pastoralist Development,” in The Poor Are Not Us: Poverty and Pastoralism, ed. David Anderson and Vigdis Broch-Due (Oxford: James Currey, 1993), 240–256; Anderson, Eroding the Commons; Little, The Elusive Granary; and Spear, Mountain Farmers.

  • 79. Hughes, Moving the Maasai.

  • 80. Waller, “Acceptees and Aliens.”

  • 81. Cronk, From Mukogodo to Maasai.

  • 82. Galaty, “Maasai Expansion.”

  • 83. Bollig, Risk Management; Bollig, “Adaptive Cycles”; Fratkin, Surviving Drought; Little, The Elusive Granary; McCabe, Cattle Bring Us to Our Enemies; Gabbert et al., eds., Lands of the Future; Cronk, From Mukogodo to Maasai; Hodgson, Being Maasai; Homewood, Kristjanson, and Trench, eds., Staying Maasai?; and Legesse, Gada.

  • 84. Spear and Waller, Being Maasai; Paul Spencer, The Pastoral Continuum: The Marginalization of Tradition in East Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); Homewood, Ecology; Homewood, Kristjanson, and Trench, eds., Staying Maasai?; Galvin et al., eds., Fragmentation; Schlee and Shongolo, Pastoralism and Politics; Robin Reid, Savannas of our Birth: People, Wildlife, and Change in East Africa (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2012); Galaty, “Indigenization”; and Gabbert et al., eds., Lands of the Future.

  • 85. Fratkin and Eric A. Roth, eds., As Pastoralists Settle; Bollig, “Adaptive Cycles”; Fratkin, Surviving Drought; Catley, Lind, and Scoones, eds., Pastoralism and Development; McCabe, Cattle Bring Us to Our Enemies; Turton, “Mursi Political Identity”; Reid, Savannas of our Birth; Homewood, Ecology; Bollig, Risk Management; Homewood, Kristjanson, and Trench, eds., Staying Maasai?; Büscher and Fletcher, The Conservation Revolution; Galaty, “Land Grabbing”; Galaty, “Modern Mobility”; and Hodgson, Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous.